Most of the travelling we do is in the movies. Even the most frequent of flyers would be hard pressed to see the sites we view so casually on the silver screen. Filmmakers love to tell their stories in exotic locales. But just as a stage set may at times have to fill in for Deadwood, the exotic languages spoken in those exotic locales have to be tamed for local consumption. Eric Hynes has put together a great video slide show over at Slate to examine how Hollywood represents foreign speech.
Since the dawn of the talkies, filmmakers have had to face the challenge of foreign tongues. “Many filmmakers are content to shoot against a painted backdrop, toss in a few bonjours, and call it France, while others go to great lengths to have characters look and speak as authentically as possible. There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s a tricky business—directors must balance the expectations of realism with ease of viewing. They want dialogue to be convincing, but they don’t want to alienate their audiences with accents or subtitles that aren’t essential to the story.”
Hynes starts off with a bit from “The Shop Around the Corner,” which takes place in Budapest. (This came as a surprise to me. I was watching it a few months ago and trying to figure out if it was supposed to be Minneapolis or St. Louis. Typical of my movie-watching skills, which continue to decline with age.) “The simplest way to handle foreign languages is to pretend they don’t exist….moment-to-moment, line-by-line, location recedes behind character and story.”
So in lieu of the exotic and incomprehensible sounds of a foreign tongue, the appropriate accent, with its power to pin a speaker to place and class, becomes an essential part of the story. A few years ago we had a call from the office of some big-name actor (I honestly can’t remember his name, even though I can picture his face, another example of my film-viewing disability.) Anyway, he wanted someone with a German accent who he could practice with for his character research. Since my Colonel Klink imitation didn’t pass muster in that initial call, we had some of our German talents record their accents. Tough sell. A real German-accented English wasn’t acceptable; something more cinematic was required.
Sometimes the accent preferences of producers drift right across the Channel. “One of the more convenient, and oddly effective, ways of representing foreign speech is to simply have everyone talk like Mary Poppins.”
Hynes also looks at the transformative power of language. Exposition in native language subtitles, and then the transformation. In Slumdog Millionaire, two Hindi-speaking kids fall off a train to “find themselves in a strange new place; they’ve morphed into different, older actors; and despite a complete lack of education or first-hand practice, they can speak fluent English.”
Good way to keep the movie moving along, I guess. But while my own language study habits are similar to falling off a train, it’s maddening sometimes how easily characters are able to bridge the language gap in a single cinematic bound. Kind of devalues the buckets of brain sweat required to make do between languages. That’s why I loved the sequence in The 13th Warrior where Antonio Banderas, playing an Arabic traveler, is learning to speak Norse around the campfire with a bunch of drunken Vikings. Cut to one campfire after another, as Banderas listens, and we watch the subtitles, until we start to hear a few words of English in the dialog, then a few more, until eventually he understands, and then tosses off a Norse insult to one blowhard, much to the Viking’s rage and the delight of his companions. Hynes didn’t do that one, but he has a bunch of other great outtakes.